Deane’s debut, Wrath Goddess Sing (Morrow, June), a retelling of the Iliad, reimagines Achilles as a trans woman and pits her against an unusually powerful Helen of Troy.
Why the Iliad?
It’s the first adult literature that I ever encountered. I was six years old and I was like, “Enough baby stuff! Give me a real book.” And my father said, “Well, let’s start at the beginning.” And then he read me the Iliad.
What inspired your retelling?
This is gonna sound ridiculous: I was seven years old and I thought it seemed cool to write books, so I had the genius idea of rewriting the Iliad. It was about three pages and I was like, “This is brilliant.” It was not, obviously. Trans Achilles came much later. I would say probably 2017. I’d transitioned some years before, and it’s very isolating. You grow up without a literature, you know? You have to find yourself in a literature that’s been redacted to remove so many of the trans elements that were there. Until the 20th century, Achilles being presented as a woman was actually really common. Not necessarily using explicit trans terminology, but this was a common reading from before the classical period until the 20th century. Retellings give you the ability to let those suppressed versions of the story breathe again.
Tell me about your take on Helen.
Like many of the characters, the fandom Helen is not the Iliad Helen. When you go back to the text, the first thing we see Helen doing is making a tapestry of the Achaeans and the Trojans killing each other. There’s very little affect besides annoyance at the idea that she could lose value if the war stopped. Which is fascinating and not the interpretation anyone after Homer went with. To come to terms with Helen as she is, as neither a damsel in distress nor particularly a schemer, in a lot of ways I just eliminated everything I didn’t want and then asked, “Okay who are you?” And then Helen started laughing and walked onto the page.
How did you approach the historical aspects?
The stuff that sticks in my brain regarding queer histories is the stuff that gives me a bitter feeling on my palate. Something feels wrong, something feels overwritten. It’s kind of like those Victorian assemblages of dinosaur bones where they didn’t know how the animals moved so they articulated them in strange, forced ways. All the pieces are there, but they’re disjointed. You have to imagine it in motion before you realize, “Oh, this is the posture of the living animal.” One thing I kept thinking when I was transitioning was, “All the historical periods that I’m so fascinated by would be hells.” But, well, I’ve been told they’d be hells, but maybe it’s more complicated than that. People have found ways to live their lives for tens of thousands of years. So at that point it became easier to imagine Achilles and what she would have been up against.